As most of you know, after 33 years of incisive political analysis every Friday night on the PBS NewsHour, Mark Shields has decided to leave his seat opposite David Brooks. For us devoted fans, it is a bittersweet moment. Many of us made a point of not missing those Friday nights, and if we couldn’t watch it live, we recorded it for later viewing.
Mark can be funny and entertaining, but his real talent is a preternatural ability to capture an idea or a situation with a simple phrase or metaphor. Unlike a lot of other political pundits and commentators who treat politics as a spectator sport, Mark is clear that politics has a larger purpose, as he says, the peaceable resolution of conflict among legitimate competing interests. And the purpose of government is to make life better for everyone, not just the few. In 2015, when it was unclear who would be running on either ticket for president, Mark remarked with dismay that the Democratic National Committee’s website had much to say about a variety of Democratic constituencies but little or nothing about working people. And a long year later, it was that failure that cost them the election.
When I first met him almost 40 years ago, I was struck immediately by his courtesy, thoughtfulness and fundamental decency. I’ve never had occasion in the years since to question my first impression. Mark in private is the same warm, engaging person who comes across on the screen. Before you can ask what he thinks, he wants to know what you think. In a debate, he may fire arrows at his opponent, but they always have a rubber tip.
Mark served two years in the United States Marine Corps as an enlisted man. His reflection on that experience—what he took away from it—is also an insight into his character. He wrote about it 10 years ago:
Marines take care of their own — and they take care of their fellow Marines before themselves. The well-being of the country and of the Corps is more important than our individual well-being.
This may best be stated in the hard-and-fast Marine rule: “Officers eat last.” The Marine officer does not eat until after his subordinates for whom he is responsible — the corporals and privates — have been fed. Marines live by the rule that loyalty goes both up and down the chain of command. Would not our country be a more just and human place if the brass of Wall Street and Washington and executive suites believed that “officers eat last”?
The Marine ethic emphasizes responsibility to duty and responsibility to others before self. This is the very opposite of the unbridled individualism that elevates profit and personal comfort to high virtues. The selfish and self-centered CEO or senator who disregards and discards his loyal “troops” would be shunned in the Corps.
It’s that fundamental regard for his fellow human beings that comes across so clearly in public and in private. And that’s what we all will miss in the Friday nights to come.